Stevia (or stevia rebaudiana) is an herb that has been the focus of much unjustified controversy and for a while was under strict scrutiny by the FDA. The plant originated in Paraguay and is sometimes known as “Sweet Herb of Paraguay.” Concentrated Stevia powder is sold in many natural food stores as a dietary supplement, but it is know for the sweetness in lieu of high calorie sugar, although due to restrictions, it cannot currently be sold as a “natural sweetener,” even though that’s what it is often used for. Home-grown Stevia lacks the potency of the refined powder sold in stores, which has a stevioside content (the stuff that makes Stevia sweet) of about 81 to 91 percent. The stevioside content in a home grown Stevia leaf is about 12 percent. Still home grown Stevia leaves can act as a nice supplement to the Stevia powder that you already use.
Before you Plant
Choose the Right Type of Stevia:
- Stevia grows fairly quickly in moderate temperatures and can be grown in most climates zone so long as the temperature stays above 40 degrees for the length of the growing season. Of course, depending upon your zone, the length of your Stevia growing season may vary.
- Young Stevia plants are sensitive to cold and frost, and should only be planted outdoors after the danger of the last frost has passed, and the soil has warmed up to 50 or 60 degrees Fahrenheit. In the coldest zones (Zones 1 and 2) this means you might not be planting until mid to late June. In the warmest zones (Zones 10 and 11) you may be planting as early as January or February.
- In the colder zones, Stevia should be treated as an annual, and will need to be replanted every year. In the warmer climates where the winters are not harsh, Stevia can be treated as a perennial and will likely survive for two or three harvests.
- Stevia also does well in a container and can be grown indoors, so long as you have sufficient lighting.
- It maybe difficult to find Stevia plants for transplanting, and you may have to do a bit of digging to find someone who sells them. Check with your local natural foods stores. There are also several mail-order businesses that will ship the Stevia plants to you. Even then, the potency of the Stevia leaves may vary from one distributer to another, so it is best to ask around to find one who is reputable and with whom others have had good experiences.
Find a Suitable Place
- Stevia prefers sunlight, but will do fine with light shade, especially if you’re planting in one of the warmer climates where temperatures may climb over 100 degrees in the summer.
- The garden patch where you intend to plant the Stevia should be well-drained and not subject to standing water. Consider planting at the top of a gentle slope. Do not choose a spot that is at the bottom of a hill or slope, where water would tend to pond.
- Stevia does best when it’s planted by itself, not with other herbs or flowers.
- If planting Stevia in a container garden, make sure it is in a spot that gets adequate sunlight, and that is protected from frost and cold.
Prepare the Soil:
- Stevia thrives well in rich, loamy soil; the soil should have plenty of compost.
- In their natural environment, Stevia is found in soil with a pH content of 4 to 5, but it will do fine in soil with pH contents as high as 9.
- Prior to planting, turn the soil with a garden spade, mixing in the compost and removing large weeds, twigs, branches, rocks, stones and other debris.
- You should clear the soil of as many weeds as possible because once the weeds take root, it will be difficult to take them out without disturbing the Stevia, whose roots tend to run shallow.
- The temperature of the soil should be above 50 degrees, and ideally in the 60 degree range.
Planting and Growing Stevia
What You Will Need:
- Gardening gloves
- Started Stevia plants
- Prepared soil (see above)
- Garden Trowel
Steps for Planting and Growing Stevia:
- Of course, Stevia can be started by seeds, but it is definitely not recommended. Stevia seeds are incredibly hard to germinate and the plants they produce are inconsistent with regard to stevioside content (sweetness levels). Consequently, the best way to cultivate Stevia is to use plants that have been started.
- Prepare a hole large enough to accommodate the roots of your young Stevia plant.
- Gently remove the Stevia plant from the starter container (keeping some soil around the roots) and place in the prepared hole.
- Fill the hole around the plant up to its base with soil, and tamp down so that the plant stays secure.
- Water the area lightly.
- Place a generous amount of mulch around the base of the plant to protect the roots, which tend to run shallow, from drying out.
- Allow at least 18 inches between your Stevia plants and about 20 to 24 inches between the rows to allow for proper growth. Stevia will grow about 2&½ feet high with a spread of about 2 feet.
Maintenance and Harvesting Stevia
What You Will Need:
- Gardening Gloves
- Gardening hose or watering can
- Fertilizer (low in nitrogen)
- Pruning Shears
- Drying screen or net
- Coffee grinder (optional)
Steps for Maintaining and Harvesting Stevia:
- Water your Stevia plants just enough to keep them from wilting; overwatering will reduce the production of stevioside and can cause the roots to rot.
- Leaf production can be enhanced by periodic application of fertilizer. Fertilizers low in nitrogen seem to work best.
- If your plant starts to develop flowers, it is best to pinch them off before they bloom; allowing the flower to bloom will cut down on leaf production, and cause the leaf to take on a bitter taste.
- Harvest your Stevia leaves in late autumn. The cool autumn temperatures and shorter days intensify the sweetness so many gardeners will postpone the harvest as long as possible.
- Cut the branches of your Stevia plant with a pruning shears prior to stripping the leaves; this will make the task easier. You may also want to clip the very tips of the stems as they contain nearly as much stevioside as the leaves.
- Once you have harvested your leaves, dry them by laying them on a screen or net and keep them in a warm location with good air circulation. If the days are still warm enough, you may want to keep them outdoors in the sun, which should have them dried in about 12 hours. Otherwise, you should keep them inside and preferably place them under a light or low level heat lamp to speed drying. Drying that takes longer than 12 hours may have an adverse affect on the sweetness of the leaves.
- Crushing the leaves is the final step in releasing the sweetness of the Stevia plant. For this step, try using a coffee grinder; it will give you a finer powder and is a lot quicker than grinding the leaves by hand.
Additional Tips and Advice
- In the warmer climates, if you don’t cut your Stevia stems down too far, the plant will likely bloom again. However, you should only get about two seasons out of the plant, after which the plant will not be as productive and the leaves will start to lose their sweetness.
- In the colder climates, your Stevia plant won’t likely survive the winter so you will need to replant in the spring. Try propagating your plant from your existing Stevia plant before the winter sets in by taking a cutting from your plant, coating the end in root hormone and planting it in a rooting medium for two to three weeks. Then, it should be re-potted in rich potting soil and kept indoors in a warm, sunny location. When the warm weather of spring arrives, you can transplant it into your garden.
- You can make your own liquid Stevia by adding a cup of warm water to ¼ cup of finely crushed Stevia leaves. Let the mixture set for 24 hours and store in the refrigerator. The Stevia leaves will not dissolve, but they will transfer their sweetness to the water.
- Stevia does have its limitations and it is not a true substitute for sugar in all instances. It doesn’t dissolve and does have an aftertaste that some people find unpleasant. Rather than a sugar substitute, consider it more as a flavoring, as you would any other herb, and you will surely find some enjoyable uses for it.
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